By Pradeep Singh
Sikhism as a faith emerged from the formative yet formidable tenets of Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and these gathered momentum over the next five centuries to place Sikhism in the comity of religions as one of its youngest constituents. Though relatively inconspicuous in demographic statistics yet Sikhism has a visible global presence with a noticeable Diaspora.
In the emergence of the Sikh faith, the successors who followed their founder played a remarkable role as master preceptors, consummate communicators and often poets of merit. They were exceptional community builders and its primary leaders and for which they were revered as Gurus in whom the spiritual aura of Nanak resided and guided their actions and becalmed their souls in difficult times. Today, in the Guru lineage there are ten masters who are regarded as Sikh Gurus. But among people, especially the non-Sikh and non-Punjabi, Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh are the ones about whom much is known. Yet, there were others who contributed to the growth of the Sikh Panth in many ways. One such shining exemplar is the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan (1564-1606) whose work for the evolution of Sikhism and its institutions can never be forgotten. Guru Arjan was only eighteen years old when his father, Guru Ram Das, nominated him as the fifth Guru. In doing so Guru Arjan bypassed his two elder brothers, Prithi Chand and Mahan Dev, which led to bitterness between him and Prithi Chand who being the eldest had hoped that he would find favour with his father and be anointed the successor Guru. Guru Arjan had to face this fraternal bitterness for his entire life as Prithi Chand’s son Manohar, better known as Meherban, too continued to challenge Arjan and his initiatives for the cause of the Sikh Panth. Guru Arjan’s work for humanity was appreciated by the then Mughal Emperor Akbar, who paid a visit to the Guru at his residence in Goindwal on the banks of the River Beas. This visit in 1598 is recorded in the Akbarnama by Abul Fazl.
The meeting between the Emperor and Guru Arjan was in many ways significant as it added lustre to the position of the Guru and enhanced his image, which led to many social groups including the rural elite of Jats to enter the fold of Sikhism, which had already appealed to these groups on account of its inclusiveness and egalitarian message. The new faith held promise of fraternity in which caste status was not of prime importance whereas honest work and spirit of service was regarded a religious and an ethical duty.
Guru Arjan had the foresight to utilise the prevailing bonhomie between the Mughal Emperor and the Gurus to carry forward landmark initiatives that became the unshakable pillars of the emerging faith. In a space of a decade, he conceptualised and executed the project of Hari Mandir (the Golden Temple) at Amritsar. This gave the Sikhs a befitting place of reverence and a pivot for far flung Sikh sangats to visit annually and be uplifted by its spiritual aura.
It was around this phase of his eventful life that Guru Arjan started the formal process of compiling and editing the Sikh holy scripture that came to be known as the Adi Granth and, later, as the Guru Granth Sahib. He put together the hymns composed by earlier Gurus to which he added a couple of thousand of his own outstanding compositions including the spiritual gem, the Sukhmani (The Pearl of Peace). Also, 31 musical ragas were identified in which the Gurbani was to be sung making the Granth a veritable treasure of classical music.
He was assisted ably in this noble task by Bhai Gurdas Bhalla, a close relative of the third Guru, Amar Das. Finally, on 16 August, 1604, Guru Arjan placed the Adi Granth in the Hari Mandir at Amritsar and added a golden chapter in the history of the Sikh Panth. By giving to the Panth a sacred canon, Guru Arjan made the Sikhs a defined religion with pride in its egalitarian uniqueness and traditions. Along with this, the Guru initiated the concept of eight Kirtan Chaukis (hymn singing) that were performed at the Hari Mandir and the tradition continues to date.
Akbar, after nearly a half century of benign rule, passed away in 1605 and this also marked an ominous phase in history. His successor Jahangir in 1606 took exception to Guru Arjan’s way of preaching and conducting the affairs of the Panth and this led to the martyrdom of the Guru with the Emperor’s complicity.
The Guru’s passing away under torture on 30 May, 1606, crystallised into an event that gave impetus to several developments in the Sikh Panth that gradually made the community more determined to stand up for its ideals that had by now been firmed up by the work of earlier Gurus and the special efforts of the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan.
“On the way where miles cannot be counted,
The name of God shall be thy provision;
On the way where there is pitch darkness,
The name of God shall accompany and light thee;
On the way where nobody knoweth thee,
The name of God shall be there to recognise thee;
Where there is very terrible heat and great sunshine,
The name of God shall be a shadow over there.
O man, where thirst tormenteth thee,
There, saiyeth Nanak, the name of God shall rain nectar on thee.”
(Guru Arjan, Sukhmani, Ashtapada II)
(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of “The Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehra Dun” and “Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra Dun”)